I know I am, but what are you?

By Will Mingus . . . As a child, I was taught the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.”

But that’s not really true, is it? Ask any child who’s been the recipient of verbal attacks from bullies, or even friends, and you’ll know that words can, in fact, hurt. A lot.

A well-aimed assault with words can leave someone fighting back tears, angry and sad all at the same time, ready for fisticuffs. As a defense, a child might try to reflect the insult with a pithy retort like, “I know you are, but what am I?”

But even worse than the immediate sting of being called some horrible name is the tendency people have to begin to believe what they hear if they hear it enough. The resolute defense begins to melt until the meek voice concedes the fight with a timid, “I know I am, but what are you?”

Long into adulthood, the effects can be heard in phrases like, “Oh, look what I’ve done! I’m so stupid,” or “Wasn’t that dumb of me?” or “Don’t take my picture. No one wants to see ME!” Self-deprecation bolsters the inner voice that has accepted as truth the lies of childhood name-calling.

Name-calling is effective because it wraps up a host of negative connotations into a simple word or a simple phrase. Without having to resort to long-winded rants, we can cut someone to the quick by uttering a simple word that is imbued with inferences and meaning. A “faggot” is just a bundle of sticks until the word is co-opted with alternate meaning intended to bring into question one’s adherence to long-standing sexual norms of heterosexuality. When one is called a “faggot” in our culture, that person is not likely to wonder if they were just referred to as a bundle of sticks. Instead, the message is clear to anyone who hears the word. And it is meant to hurt.

Sociologist Howard Becker noted, “The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied.” And nothing indicates the successful application of a label as much as when a person begins to use the label to refer to him or herself.

People love to label things. It simplifies their lives. Because each label carries with it so many embedded assumptions, there is no need to clarify further other than to state the label. There is no need to say, “The building where they cook food and serve it to people who come in, sit down, eat, and then pay for the meal and the service.” Instead, we just need to say, “a restaurant.” Instead of telling people you are going to “a big building where there’s lots of sick people and doctors and nurses and medicine where they try to make people feel better,” you just tell them you’re going to the hospital. Such is the power of a word that when you say hospital, it conjures in the minds of others images of sick people, doctors, nurses, and medicine.

Such is the power of a word that even common, every-day words can be warped into a pejorative. When you accuse a boy or a man of “hitting like a girl,” it evokes a stereotype of women as gentle and meek and thus becomes an insult to one’s masculinity. To call one a “faggot” is to suggest a perversion and, in many cultures and sub-cultures, a socially-unacceptable deviance. A single word can do more damage than a litany of explanation.

And so it is with people on a registry. The purpose of a public registry is to “name and shame” a person, imbuing them with a host of characteristics that are assumed in the assigned label. People are labeled as “sex offender” or “murderer” or “arsonist” or some other name that is designed to suggest that a person is, in fact, that label. To say the word does not convey the idea that a person “did” something in their past but instead insinuates that they are a person who did, and always will do, something. It is a way to successfully apply a label to a person.

The reality is that the label is applied so often, and by so many people, that those who are on the registry often tacitly accept the moniker as reality. Just like the child who believes he really is dumb because he’s heard it said so often, people on a registry often come to believe that they are, in fact, what everyone says they are.

But like any junk science, these alternative facts simply are not true. A person does not become what he did in the worst moment of his life. We live a linear existence where it is impossible to go back in time and undo what we’ve done, no matter how much we wish we could. Thus our past makes up a part of who we are, but it does not—and must not—define the essence of our being.

It is time for all of us to stop repeating the labels that are associated with being on a registry. It is time to banish words like “sex offender” or “arsonist” or “murderer” and start using “people first” language. Labeling words are more than just classifications. They are laden with negative connotations and stereotypes, and they never accurately reflect the totality of a human being. These labels suggest that there are, in fact, people who are only and nothing more than that label. But as humans, we are always so much more. We are fathers and mothers and brothers and friends, students and lovers and wives and so much more. A person can never be only what is implied by a simple label.

Because it is in our nature to contrive labels, some have begun to use labels like “registrant” or “registered citizen.” The problem with these labels is that they are still labels and, as such, continue to carry with them the negative connotations of those labels. They continue to make the registry the primary focus of a person’s existence, swapping one label for another.

This is where the power of “people-first” language comes in. We are all people, humans, homo sapiens. We are set apart by our ability for self-reflection and our ability to adapt and change. Above and before anything else, we are people. No amount of name-calling can demote someone from the status of “human.”

So I suggest that there are no “sex offenders” or “arsonists” or “murderers.” Instead, there are people on public registries who have committed offenses and paid their debts to society — people who refuse to be labeled by their worst moments.

I’ll concede that it is easier, and quicker, to use the label. After all, it’s more work to say, “people on registries” or “a person who committed this offense or that.” But in the end, I believe the extra work, and the extra words, are worth the effort if it means greater clarity. And if we continue to refer to ourselves with these pejorative labels, how can we ever hope to convince others to stop using them?

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Will Mingus

Will is editor-in-chief of LifeTimes magazine and the ED of Illinois Voices for Reform. Directly impacted by registration laws, he has made a life-long commitment to fighting these draconian laws and also helping others navigate the difficult terrain of being listed on a public registry. He holds several degrees including a PhD in sociology, and his research has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. Will is the father of an amazing adult daughter, and he remains active in various community social activities.

  • This topic has 9 replies, 2 voices, and was last updated 2 years ago by AvatarSaddles.
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    • #53400 Reply
      Ed C

      There is so much to say about your article, but so little space. Labels, particularly those regarding persons, do matter. The images invoked by such a label are processed in primitive parts of the brain, and not the higher centers that are involved in reasoning. That is one factor in why we are resistant to changing our opinions in the face of overwhelming data to the contrary. This discrepancy between existing images and new data is most often resolved in favor of our “lizard brain”, and we simply reject the data. Virtually all studies and data indicate a low recidivism rate. Despite that truth, many of us have experienced a brick wall when trying to convince some people of that.

      Personally, I never refer to myself as a “sex offender.” The closest I come is in referring to myself, and others, as “former” sex offenders. Even that term evokes inappropriate images. The term “sex offender” is in the present tense. This creates a perception of who I am, rather than what I once did. The present tense affects how we view ourselves, as well as how others view us. Interestingly, I brought this up in a group therapy session, and some people could not shift their view of themselves as sex offenders. All it takes for a misconception to become a preconception is time.

      • #53495 Reply

        Well stated Ed, I agree 100% with your post. This is exactly how I feel about all this.


    • #53443 Reply
      troy e

      my offense was 35 years ago,im sure I am no threat to society,im also handicap(amputee left lower calf and foot) yes I’m no angel but that word s/o makes me cringe, but all I can do is be a good person and pray no harm comes to my wife since nv changed my tier to 3 from 1

    • #53466 Reply

      I committed a sex offense…25 years ago, and did not even know what we did was illegal (incest with near relative) because we were consenting adults. But that’s besides the point. I am also a father, a son, a brother, a counselor, an employer, a friend, a neighbor, a dog owner, a tax payer, a senior citizen, an asthmatic, a bald man, a male for that matter, a person of European decent, a Christian, a mentor, a student, a great cook (my opinion), and a tolerable writer. I’m many many other things to, and I never felt like wearing that one lable, and have not had it thrust in my face outside of the judicial and correctional world, other than when ever a vigilante chooses to throw it at me. Of all the labels that make up the many parts of me, that’s the one that is least indicative of who I am as a person. Hey, here’s a thought, call me a person and we will all get along.

    • #53470 Reply

      Men, women and children are by Law compelled to maintain and update state’s electronic database machine. The machine is the people’s s property, like a jail or prison complete with bars around areas where a man women of child may live, or reside even temporarily move. That always was the intent. Plain indentured servitude forcing man legally subservient to the people’s machine property. Conscription in fact and many ” citizens” without process acquiesced or not. “Was in prison” was used in statutes. All for unfettered unconstitutional “use” to monitor the people whole without warrant. FISA courts operate in secret! And already proven disruptive to the process.

    • #53471 Reply
      Will Allen

      I’m a person who is listed on a big government Registry. It is not even relevant except that it allows true scumbags to harass my family.

    • #53616 Reply

      This is an interesting article. Since having found NARSOL and reading articles on this site I’ve moved away from referring to registrants as sex offenders and used, well, ‘registrant’. I also, don’t mind the label ‘ex offender’ as its clever and emphasizes that the offense was committed in the past (although is also emphasizes the offense). Sometimes labels can be a good thing and can unite people under a certain cause. The label ‘victim’ for example, while largely seen as a weakness, can actually help someone get the resources and help they need to become a ‘survivor’, a label they may not have been able to use had they not previously used the ‘victim’ label.
      Instead of ditching the ‘registrant’ label because it carries negative connotations, I’m in favor of keeping the ‘registrant’ label and ditching the negative connotations by educating the public about who ‘registrants’ are and discussing why the negative connotations don’t apply. As long as ‘registrants’ exist, we need to continue to let the world know that we exist, who we are, and what we stand for.

    • #53700 Reply
      Mr branded

      Registry is unconstitutional and serves no value to the public ! Educating people while holding others i.e. registrants hostage is not acceptable or right ! People need to educate themselves ! And be held accountable! The Law has the job of dealing with past offenses and we need to entrap and have sting operations facilitated toward females to prove the point of how ethically wrong and politically it is to go after men in particular. Also we the people need to empower men when it comes to the issues of sexuality and give Social, economical and legal help to ensure successful changes and balance for their everyday life ! Such as enhanced sexual expression and family support in divorce and male parental right/choice to babies life and control ! We need sensitivity and empathy towards fathers, husbands and brotherly roles in society! !! We need more men’s programs the laws need to be balanced in child support and stop jailing child support…oops have to go for now !! Thanks ! Take care !!!

    • #54662 Reply

      Labeling? What does that tell a person. Well maybe we should use mankinds system of labeling to find the answer of why label others. I don’t believe man is a test tube for a science project. Sure we label alcoholics, rapists, murders and others but who puts a label on on truth..

      While man wants to go the scientific approach on everything. I wonder who created the big bang theory? Man has always apporached labeling as an inblance of character or justic, or are we all still sinners.. In this sex offender endeavor who is labeling who. Does the public really know how these police snare their prey. Is this public safety a cover up to justify mankind?

      Folks at times one has to take NARSOL with a grain of salt as they seem to want to use a scientific approach of why or how does this happen. Actually a lot of this sex offender stuff is all about pride, and labeling is a stero type of man’s evaluation over others. Sure we all have been teased as a kid but this is reality and police are doing a devilish thing in a lot of this sex offender scheme. Call it constutitional or unconstitutional a lot of this goes against the grain of true justice and values.

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